Another year, another trip into the heart of dorkness. Gen Con Indy 2006 was marked, not so much by the big releases (because there weren't that many this year), but by changes in the wind. Several newer systems were in their second year, garnering praise for their continued quality. Some games that we saw last year weren't even around this year. Others were just not doing as well as their creators would have hoped. The focus, though, was entirely on the games ... and next year's convention. The talk in the halls and on the exhibit hall floor, when not about dice and mechanics, surrounded what Gen Con will be like next year and the changes that videogames will bring to the event. Read on for my comments about what I saw this year, what worked, what didn't, and a few words on what might result from next year's changes.Dreamblade. A 'collectable miniatures' game, WotC is building on their experience with the D&D and Star Wars miniature games to try for another hit along the lines of Magic: The Gathering. You can't doubt their sincerity: a $20K tournament was held at the convention, and $1000 mini-tournaments are going to be held across the country in the coming weeks. It's difficult to describe the 'genre' of the game, but the gent demoing the title at the Wizards booth likened it to a cross between Magic and Chess. In Dreamblade, you take on the role of a Psionic master, creating creatures out of dreamstuff. Strange and twisted nightmares are summoned onto a board. You advance these creatures across the board, trying to hold certain areas while simultaneously destroying your opponent's. The game is broken up into discrete turns, and a game session has a limited number of turns before it is over. The mechanics seemed very simple to pick up, but there was a good deal of strategy inherent in the interaction between board, creatures, and players.
Last year's con report had me talking about another Wizards launch, a card game called Hecatomb. You may recall me saying 'The quick Demo I had the chance to take in wasn't enough to make me run off and buy it, but I look forward to taking a closer look in the future.' Hecatomb has since joined the creepy creatures it portrayed in deathless slumber. Just one year later, a friend bought eight starter sets of last year's 'next big thing' from a dealer for $10 and a trio of lollipops. I imagine the game died because of poor sales, but I couldn't tell you for sure what happened there. If anyone has details, please share. As surprised as I was this year to learn Hecatomb had already succumbed to market forces, I was even more surprised to see them launching a new game so soon afterwards. Dreamblade has a weightier feel than Hecatomb did last year, though. While I don't think it will be replacing D&D minis any time soon, I also have the feeling it won't be gone by the time Gen Con Indy 2007 rolls around.
Beyond card games, last year also saw the launch of a few powerhouses in the table-top roleplaying market. Shadowrun 4th edition, Mutants and Masterminds 2nd edition, and Mage: The Awakening all took the stage, to varying amounts of applause. A year later, and each of them has been well received by their intended audiences. The superhero title Mutants and Masterminds has had brisk sales as gamers come to love its very different approach to the d20 system. New supplements include a GM's guide, a campaign setting, and a brand-new powers book. Mage, as successor to White Wolf's 'Ascension' line, continues to impress old and new gamers alike. A new sister product was on offer at the con, Promethean: the Created. Promethean is a storytelling game about crafted creatures, golems or monstrosities from the labs of Frankensteinian scientists. I didn't have a chance to catch a demo, but a flip through the book and initial player reactions would indicate White Wolf is living up to its usual level of quality. Shadowrun has had a somewhat slow year, product-wise, but FanPro was offering a major release at their booth: Street Magic. This first real look at magic in the 2070s answers a lot of questions, and begins to get players and GMs into the feel of the reworked setting. From talking to the folks at their booth, and observing games around the con, adoption of the refined 4th edition rules has been a huge success. Having run a campaign with the new rules, I can definitely vouch for their simplicity and transparency.
Privateer Press. Publishers of the tactical miniatures games Warmachine and Hordes, as well as the RPG setting Iron Kingoms, Privateer runs a bustling booth. As it's usually packed with enthusiastic fans, I've never really had the chance to check out their products. I'm very much late to the party, but I finally had the chance to take in some demos and I wanted to be sure to mention them. I'm not much of a wargamer, but the high-fantasy-meets-steampunk on the battlefield feel of their titles was enough to turn my head. Warmachine's uncomplicated game mechanics made a demo a highly enjoyable experience, and the incredible detail the figurines sport is something all lead-crafters should strive for. Beyond the simplicity of their wargaming offerings, I also had the chance to enjoy a session of the Iron Kingdoms RPG. Despite its D&D roots, the title felt very different from many 'traditional high fantasy' games I've played. In an industry built around new takes on old concepts, it was great to see the lengths they've gone to in order to step beyond what we think of as Dungeons and Dragons.
There were some brand-new products and announcements in the offing this year as well. An announcement I heard mentioned several times as I walked the hall is next year's plan to reintroduce the d20 Star Wars RPG. The discontinued product line is going to be relaunched, with a slimmed-down rules system and a lot of detail dropped into the game's tweaks. The reappearance of Runequest was a smaller, but just as appreciated, product event. The new line by Mongoose is a relaunch of the 1978 Chaosium title, with industry heavyweights like Robin Laws and Kenneth Hite contributing material. RuneQuest was a predecessor game for some of the most popular titles in the industry today, and so it will be very interesting to see how the new rules and setting appeal to gamers of today. The largest launch at the con, if only by virtue of physical size, was the Ptolus campaign setting from Malhavoc Press. Weighing in at over 700 pages, the book feels almost brobdingnagian to hold; just finding a comfortable position to read the thing was something of a challenge. It's well worth the effort, though. The depth of information, quality of production, and freshness of the setting are inspiring. At $120, it's certainly not for everyone, but it made quite an impression at an overall fairly quiet convention.
Two previews this year may have dipped below the radar for some convention attendees, if only by virtue of the challenges in playing them. While not yet officially launched, the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game and the EVE: Second Genesis Collectible Card Game were visible from many places in the convention hall. Actually getting the chance to learn more about them, though, was something of a trial. In point of fact, I didn't get the chance to play either of them. I can't really fault EVE's creators for my lack of information: EVE's double-decker booth had an intimidatingly long line for much of the convention. I go to Gen Con primarily to play games, and I just never had the time to wait around. If anyone has first-hand experience with CCP's newest endeavor, please feel free to share. The WoW CCG, on the other hand, was actually being demoed by appointment only. I didn't make the cut. If you're interested in the game itself, Upper Deck has a Gen Con blog, which ran for much of last weekend. In between the sycophantic statements, the author talks about some fairly interesting game mechanics that I'm sure would have been really interesting to check out.
Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO) was there again this year. A much less enthusiastic crowd surrounded their booth; the game's launch left few who hadn't already been exposed to the game and desperately wanted to play. Despite the lack of a fervent crowd, Turbine was proudly showing off the next module for the title and seemed to be honestly seeking player feedback on where to go next. There were several developers on-hand speaking to the con-goers, and the one that came up to me began 'Hi there. Do you have any complaints about the game?' While I'm still not sure about where they've gone with DDO, it's good to see they're honestly seeking input on what they've done so far. Mythic, on the other side of a wall from Turbine, was far less interested in such feedback. Their booth was staffed by PR and marketing hires; while perfectly nice and very willing to walk me through a demo of Warhammer Online, my technical questions about the game went over their heads. I wasn't very impressed, either with Mythic's showing or with the game itself. The buzz around the convention seemed to be that it is 'too much' of a World of Warcraft (WoW) ripoff. The thematic links between Warhammer and WoW are obvious, but Mythic didn't seem terribly interested in distancing itself from the millions-strong Blizzard title. Another very familiar face was Neverwinter Nights 2, the unapologetic sequel to the 2002 Bioware title. Essentially 'just' a prettier version of the first game, with updates to the Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 rules-set, it was still one of the most popular PC games at the convention. The module construction tool was available for perusal as well. While I only had a few minutes to slap together a bare-bones adventure, the whole experience was very intuitive. They've obviously made some major improvements over the Aurora set, and have made the members of the (still-active) Neverwinter community very pleased.
Pleased would also be the best way to describe my reaction to the highly original Pirates of the Burning Sea, (PotBS) which I got to have my first hands-on time with at the convention. Far from 'yet another boring fantasy knock-off', PotBS is going to have Massive gamers yarring in delight when it launches. Ship combat is fast paced, while still remaining highly strategic. There are a number of factions to fight for or against, and a highly involved PvP system that will allow for real 'ownership' of the game world. Pirates was far and away the highlight of my Gen Con experience, and I'm very much looking forward its commercial launch. They're announcing their ship date on the 25th of the month, at PAX, and I certainly hope it's sooner rather than later. A quirky, already available title also on the show floor was the engaging Pox Nora. Essentially an online fantasy miniatures game, Pox is priced at the appealing level of free. Gameplay is a one-on-one skirmish between two players. They pit their randomly assigned figurine armies against each other, taking control of strategic areas of the game board while trying to destroy the other player's units and structures. It's a little odd to get used to at first, but I highly recommend giving it a try if you have some free time.
table-top gaming's awards show make legends of products and people. I was particularly glad to see that Paizo's Shackled City Adventure Path got several firm nods. The new editions of Shadowrun and Mutants and Masterminds were also highly lauded. I picked up the new Order of the Stick book, No Cure for the Paladin Blues, but didn't have a chance to play the OOTS card/board game. The reaction from a few people I spoke to was kind of 'eh', but they sold out their entire stock on the first day of the convention just the same. I played the live action corridor romp True Dungeon again this year, and this time around it just plain old sucked eggs. My group made it to the last room perfectly fine (where we died, which is to be expected), but the entire event felt poorly planned and executed compared to previous experiences. I will definitely not be playing again next year. I also didn't have the inclination or finances to buy one of the two massive D&D figurines Wizards of the Coast was showing off at the convention. The Gargantuan Black Dragon, already available, stood wing-to-wing with the as yet unreleased Colossal Red. Along with the enormous Cthulu HorrorClix figure (another game I didn't get to play this con), they ensured there were many people lugging around too-big boxes for much of the event. I also didn't get a chance to see the screenings of The Gamers 2, or attend the Videogames Live concert that coincided with the weekend's festivities. There's always so much going on at Gen Con, it's a yearly trial to prioritize what 'has' to be done.
One thing I did get to see was a trailer for Dungeon Runners, one of the new 'free' games that NCSoft is developing. The presence of videogames was notably larger this year, with a room set aside for the videogaming tournaments and a large screen in one of the main hallways displaying trailers for upcoming titles. Last year (and in years previous) videogames were relegated to some out-of-the-way corner of the convention, as more traditional gaming types retained the attention of advertisers, companies, and attendees. All of these elements were signs of things to come. As you've no doubt heard by this point, the downsizing of E3 next year has resulted in a number of pretenders to the throne. Gen Con LLC has announced their intention to try for the crown. Gen Con So Cal will be moved to the LA Convention center next year, and Indy is going to be offering an additional 43,000 square feet to videogame publishers and developers that would like to get some face time with the pen-and-paper set. Opinions were decidedly mixed at the convention, and I have to say that I'm more than a little trepidacious about what these changes might mean for the 'best four days in gaming'.
The Indy convention is the successor to the con held in Milwaukee for many years. It has always held a place of honor as the 'con of cons', but that place is no longer assured. I simply can't see game publishers wanting to trek out to the Midwest, when there is a perfectly good alternative a few months later on the West coast. I'm definitely biased, being a midwesterner myself, but I hate to think of the tradition of Gen Con being tossed aside in a bid for videogaming advertising dollars. Gen Con has always been about wargaming, pen and paper RPGs, miniatures, card games ... it's nerdy and 'uncool', to be sure, but for the people who care about such things this convention has always been a place they could call 'home'. The cover for this year's events booklet even bought into that sentiment, saying in as many words "Welcome to Gen Con ... Welcome Home!"